Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Case Study No. 1174: Robert Kent and Ann Sparanese

Castro's Library (2005) - excerpt
In 1998, Robert Kent, a librarian working in the New York public library system, was the first to initiate a concentrated effort in support of the "Independent Library Movement" in Cuba. On his private website, he accuses the Castro government of attacking "intellectual freedom" through its harassment, and recent jailings, of the independent librarians for reasons of their illegal and counter-revolutionary practices (i.e. collecting and sharing books absent from Cuba's officially endorsed library collection). Moreover, Kent is adamant in his condemnation of the American Library Association (ALA), the Canadian Librarian Association (CLA), and the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) for their refusal to publicly condemn Cuba's attacks on intellectual freedom, and Kent has cited such respected representatives of democracy as Noam Chomsky, Vaclav Havel, and Nat Hentoff (of the Village Voice) as supporters of his cause.

Ann Sparanese, an "activist librarian" from New Jersey, council member of the ALA's Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT), a 2003 New York Times "Librarian of the Year," and an outspoken defendant of Michael Moore's Stupid White Men (when censorship of its publication in North America was threatened), is contrarily at the forefront of negative responses to Kent's initiative. Not only does Sparanese prefer to cite Cuba's 98% literacy rate, but claims that the "librarians" in question are not librarians at all, but dissidents with ties to expatriated, monied Cubans living in the US. Furthermore, she accuses Kent, as well as the members of the "Independent Library Movement," of being illegitimate actors covertly funded by governmental organizations connected to the CIA. Sparanese sees Kent's activities as a continuation of the "Cold War" tactics of the US government in its objective to annex Cuba and remove Castro from power.

Video interview by Craig Leonard
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NARRATOR: You wouldn't expect shouting matches between librarians ...
["Castro's Library" appears on screen]
NARRATOR: There are small libraries that are being run by individual citizens who are lending books to other people. Many of these books are banned in Cuba ... or that's, at least, what is claimed.
[cut to black-and-white footage of an older male librarian speaking directly to the camera]
ROBERT KENT: My name is Robert Kent, and I am co-chair of an organization called the Friends of Cuban Libraries.
[cut to black-and-white footage of an older female librarian speaking directly to the camera]
ANN SPARANESE: My name is Ann Sparanese, I'm a librarian in Englewood, New Jersey.
[cut back to Robert speaking directly to the camera]
ROBERT KENT: My first visit was in Nineteen Ninety Two, and I read more and more about Cuba as a result of that, and eventually I found out about these groups of people in Cuba who were actually forming independent libraries. I'd never heard of that before.
[cut back to Ann speaking directly to the camera]
ANN SPARANESE: I call them the, uh, the uh ... "so-called independent librarians," because I don't believe they are librarians. And, uh, I think that they are people who, well, they have a long history. And this is something that I found out, uh, through studying them because when I talked to the writer of that post, who is Mister Kent, Mister Robert Kent, about the libraries, he was in charge of the Friends of Cuban Libraries, or the founder of it, I found out a little bit about his history. Uh, what his interests was, and that made me believe that these folks weren't really who they said they were.



American Library Association
International Relations Committee
Latin American and Caribbean Subcommittee
January 15, 2001


At the request of ALA International Relations Committee (ALA-IRC), the Latin American and Caribbean Subcommittee examined issues around access to information in Cuba during its Midwinter Meetings, 2001. The topic had been referred by Jordan Scepanski, Chair, ALA-IRC.

ALA member Robert Kent, representing Friends of Cuban Libraries, wrote to Mr. Scepanski on July 6, 2000, stating his concerns regarding the "situation of Cuba's independent libraries" and the "shocking and unprecedented persecution of Cuba's independent librarians." He asked that these matters be "placed on the agenda" of ALA-IRC. The matter was consequently referred to the Latin American and Caribbean Subcommittee.

The Subcommittee, in response to its charge, conducted a hearing, consulted numerous written sources (see attached list) and discussed the issues at length. This is a report of the review and the recommendation of the Subcommittee.

Speakers at 1/13/01 Subcommittee Meeting

Robert Kent of the New York Public Library spoke as a representative of Friends of Cuban Libraries, the organization that initiated the request that ALA and the IRC address the issue of "independent libraries" in Cuba. He touched on the fact that many groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented cases of human rights violations in Cuba.

Stating that his organization's only concern is intellectual freedom, he explained that it is difficult to find materials that do not support the Castro government in Cuban libraries. The "independent library" movement began in 1998 to address this deficiency and make more diverse materials available to Cuban readers. According to Mr. Kent the "independent librarians" have been met with intimidation, harassment, and repression by the government. In September 1999, IFLA issued a report documenting repression of these "independent libraries," and national library organizations in Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Canada have officially condemned this oppression.

Mr. Kent and Friends of Cuban Libraries want ALA to draft a resolution containing two parts: 1) a condemnation of the Cuban government's oppression of the "independent libraries" and 2) a proposal that ALA provide support to the "independent libraries."

Ann Sparanese of the Englewood (N.J.) Public Library responded to Mr. Kent's remarks by stating that Friends of Cuban Libraries is an organization sponsored and funded by the U.S. government, Freedom House, the Cuban American National Foundation, and a variety of other anti-Castro groups. According to Ms. Sparanese, Freedom House receives money from the U.S. government to spread dissident material, which is delivered to Cuba by couriers such as Mr. Kent, who, she pointed out, has been deported from Cuba in the past. She also said that Mr. Kent's associate in Friends of Cuban Libraries, Jorge Sanguinetty, works as a commentator for Radio Marti, which broadcasts anti-Castro messages into Cuba from Florida.

Ms. Sparanese says that the "independent libraries" are collections of books in individual's homes and are not operated by librarians or library workers of any type. Almost all the individuals operating these "libraries" identify themselves as dissidents and members of anti-Castro political parties. She also asserted that she has seen no evidence of censorship or confiscation of books in her many visits to Cuba.

Ms. Sparanese concluded by stating that she believes this issue is not one ALA should become embroiled in because it is really a political issue that does not in fact involve libraries as ALA recognizes them.

Rhonda Neugebauer, Wichita State University, spoke about her personal experiences visiting two "independent libraries" in Cuba. The first one she described consisted of four or five dusty shelves of books, a collection she says is typical of that of any private citizen in the country. She spoke with a woman at the location who said no books had ever been confiscated, that she was not being intimidated or threatened by the government as a result of having this collection, and that she did not think the government would be opposed to any of the books in her collection. She said the director had never been harassed or imprisoned and that he, in fact, had left the country in 1994, years before the "independent library" movement began. The woman receives many of her books as well as payment for her activities from the U.S. and Mexico, but would not identify individual sources. She said she was asked to operate the library because she is a dissident. She also works for Radio Marti.

The second library visited by Ms. Neugebauer had no books, which the person she talked to explained was because the operators had given the books away in preparation to emigrate. Ms. Neugebauer specifically asked if the books had been confiscated by the government and was told no.

Ms. Neugebauer's observation is that ALA should avoid becoming involved in the political issue and should therefore take no action.

Finally the Subcommittee heard from three other individuals speaking on behalf of Friends of Cuban Libraries: Alba Rohdes, Radames Suarez, and Mario Ramirez. Ms. Rohdes, a Cuban, said she did not see what harm the group's activities did to the Cuban government, the Cuban people, or the American people. She says they are simply providing an alternative for readers in Cuba and asked whether it really matters where the materials originate. She, Mr. Suarez, and Mr. Ramirez reiterated Mr. Kent's statements on the importance of intellectual freedom.

During the discussion, Ms. Neugebauer affirmed her belief that any condemnation by ALA at this point, based on information that may be inaccurate and politically loaded, could be offensive to library colleagues in Cuba and might harm the peer relationships American librarians are trying to develop with Cuban librarians.

George Eberhart, senior editor for American Libraries, stated that he visited the National Library of Cuba recently and had an informative discussion with the staff. Mr. Eberhart's article about his trip to Cuba will be published in American Libraries in February 2001. Mr. Eberhart described a test of the collections at the Library. When asked whether they owned any books by Cuban expatriate authors Reynaldo Arenas and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, a search of the public catalog revealed multiple titles by both authors.

Summary and recommendation

Data presented on both sides of the issue are inconclusive, with each side questioning both the accuracy and the intention of the other. While the civil oppression of individuals associated with these collections appears to be documented by Amnesty International and other observers, it is not conclusive whether these conditions result from the denial of intellectual freedom or from anti-government activities by the persons involved. The "independent" nature of the various collections of books and other documents, as well as the political agenda of those individuals responsible for them, are questionable, but seem to represent the political orientation of special interests positioned in opposition to the Cuban government.

The Subcommittee deplores any restrictions by the government of Cuba or the government of the United States of America that inhibit the free flow of information among librarians of Cuba and of the United States, and strongly endorses the policy objective of the American Library Association "to promote and support human rights and intellectual freedom worldwide." (ALA Handbook of Organization, ALA Policy Manual 58.1 Policy objectives, 2)

Based on its extensive review, the Subcommittee recommends that the International Relations Committee of the American Library Association take no further action with respect to the current question of the "independent" collections of books and other printed materials in Cuba.



All photographs by Craig Leonard; part of mixed media installation "Castro's Library" (2005)


Forms and functions of language lie at the base of much of Craig Leonard's work. When language is obscure, one finds the unexpected. In 2004, for example, Leonard published Obsolete Concepts: A Locator, the result of his research into "lost words" in the English language. So lnkhornr'srn is succinctly defined as "a learned or pedantic word or expression; an ink-horn term or phrase," while priggism is the word for professional thievery or roguery, with an example given from Fielding (1743), "The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great I. iii: An undeniable testimony of the great antiquity of Priggism," Other wonderful examples include putation as "the pruning or trimming of trees, and (2} the action of considering or reckoning; supposition, estimation." Or we have rhetorism, that is, rhetorical action, as in Sanford's translation (1569) of Agrippa's "Of the Vanity and Uncertainty of the Artes and Sciences xxi: Of rhetorisrne, or of the Rhetoricall Daunsinge." As Leonard points out in his prologue, for the Editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, "the application of the category 'obsolete' lobs.) refers to words that have been out of use since roughly 1800 yet interestingly, they are not 'old-fashioned' enough to warrant categorisation as ARCHAIC, which is the label that defines 'an attachment to an earlier period'. To be obsolete then is to be less dead than dormant, though doubtless closer to the grave than to a renascence." Obsolete Concepts gives a new life to these words but also reflects on the lineage of language itself, and our necessary involvement with its evolution.

Craig Leonard is intrigued by words, and not above the long slog of research needed to follow through on a hunch. No antiquarian, he delights in surprise and juxtaposition, for example concocting a bilingual book of poems by Odette lrioget (1901-1938?) along with a listing of the contents of her (imagined) library and an introduction to the book by R. Oelze {Berlin 1937} "translated" from the German by Leonard himself. Or for an exhibition in 2003 at Stauffer Library, Queen's University, where he had completed an undergraduate degree in English, Leonard combed through the Canadian literature section to find all the books that had been untouched for fifty to one hundred years, as evidenced in their circulation cards. After so long a wait, unread, he brought them out of their obscurity for exhibition in the library's main hall.

Not all of Leonard's work is print-based. Since 2001 he has done a number of audio projects. In collaboration with Bryne McLaughlin in Toronto bars, with Clive Robertson or Graeme McCann for Kingston's annual "Tone Deaf" Sound Festival (which Leonard founded in 2002), and in 2002 with Jan Dufek On Radio Jeleni in Prague, Czech Republic. Most recently, a six-turntabie installation Arte del Contrapunto was presented in Toronto in 2004.

Other works have been sculptural or performance-related. in 2002, he installed a For Sale sign in front of the Swamp Ward Gallery in Kingston, but "sale" was not at issue. On closer examination, this sign listed all idioms beginning with the word "for": an ironic, open-ended partiai poem, and an invitation for passersby to engage. In 2004 he created a kindy'ester, a performance project in which abandoned bikes were rebuilt and left in their repaired form as both a gift for their owners and as temporary public scuipture. Real-time video documentation of the fixing of the bikes was used to record the performances.

Chance discoveries have generated many of his projects. Having found an inscription by "Petr Krizeneoky" in a book from a Berlin flea market, Leonard attempted to locate the man in the Czech Republic and return the book as a gift. Unsuccessful, he used it as the centre-piece of an instailation {2002) for Zed Studio in Prague, the book open for reading beside a fabricated text by Bozenka Bastloval "On the History of Collectors and Collections in Austria, Czechoslovakia. and Hungary" (1963}. As a work, Petr Krizenecky was part installation, part performance, but based finally on process itself and an attempt to connect through social engagement. In a related piece that year, he arranged an event simply called reunion, where his former English-language students, as well as the general public, were invited to Galerie Display in Prague. Intended as an event that problematized "audience" and "performer", his err-students were central to the event, as were the members of the general public in attendance; there was categorical instability for both exsstudents and outside attendees.

Craig Leonard's artistic roots are in classic conceptual art, but also relate to both philosophy (Michel Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge) and narrative (the pseudo-documentary of W.G. Sebald, Umberto Eco, or Woody Allen's Zelr'g), and to artists implicated in similar concerns including llya Kabakov, Sophie Calle, and Christian Boltanski. He is interested in both history and the obscure or marginal, and where these might intersect.

For Castro's Library in the present exhibition, chance was fully operative at the outset. In the course of research on such private libraries as that of James Joyce in Trieste and Jonathan Swift in Dublin, he wondered what more provocative libraries might exist and on a whim looked up Fidel Castro. Answers then generated new questions, and his query about Castro led to his discovery of an organisation called Friends of Cuban Libraries, with its invitation to "adopt a Cuban library" by sending books and supplies to any one of the hundred or so "independent libraries" listed on its website. Further research on the Friends organisation revealed that its objectives were contested by activists within several official international library associations. Leonard recognized the overlapping interests in libraries as sites of potential knowledge and the suggestion of intrigue behind the independent library movement in Cuba, which prompted further investigation that led him to New York and New Jersey to meet with two outspoken American librarians with opposing viewpoints on the matter. Their edited video interviews form the trigger event in the present installation.

Travelling to Cuba in December 2004, Leonard was able to visit several of the independent libraries and meet with the librarians themselves, and photograph both their exterior and interior spaces. Five of these paired images are included in Castro's Library. In some cases these "libraries" amount to a shelt or two of tattered books in someone's apartment, and their owners willingly talked about their gifts from the US Special Interest Section in Havana: books or little radios with which they can tune in to Radio Marti, a propagandistic station directly funded by the US government.

The "independent" nature of the collections, as well as their users, are rather loosely defined, apart from the fact that they are not supperted by the Cuban state itself. Leonard has done a forensic analysis through itemized line drawings of two of the libraries he visited, identifying titles on their shelves. Newspapers are piled up, the accumulated result of his research: reprinted articles and commentaries mapping out the whole issue, presented as a sixteen-page tabloid Biblr'o Files, for visitors to take away.

Like many of Craig Leonard's earlier projects, words and language are the foundation of Castro's Library, but versions of the "truth", international politics and state influence, are also foregrounded here. No matter how many words are offered for our consumption, the answers lie in our own judgement and our willingness to view and assess. Understanding and real communication are revealed as limited, but in their elusive presence we hover at the edge of the art.

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